The pandemic has forced London’s commuters to come to terms with an old and destructive habit – spending thousands of pounds at Pret a Manger.
“I used to get a coffee and pastry in the morning, then lunch was a sandwich, drink, crisps and a dessert pot or fruit,” says one Pret aficionado. “I was spending at least £15 to £18 a day. So that’s £340 to £360 a month!”
For some, Pret had become part of their company culture. “I’d often buy coffee for other people in the team too,” another admits. “It just was part of what we did in our office.”
Like many businesses crippled by the pandemic, Pret a Manger entered 2020 in rude health. In its latest results, the company reported turnover of £710 million in 2018, an increase on the previous year. Pret had grown so ubiquitous in the capital that from several locations any Londoner with the inclination and the arm could torpedo one of Pret’s Chicken Caesar & Bacon baguettes – the chain’s top selling sandwich – through the open door of another Pret a Manger.
This growth has not continued through 2020. Last month, Pret announced 2,890 redundancies and 28 shop closures; a decade of growth has been wiped off the company in weeks. Footfall at its sites in London still remains the lowest ever recorded, and sales remain 60 per cent lower than a year ago. Pret’s sprawling empire is crumbling.
Pret was founded at 75B Victoria Street in London, supposedly because founders Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, who purchased the branding from a liquidated shop in Hampstead, couldn’t find a “proper sandwich” anywhere. (This was six years after Marks & Spencer began selling packaged sandwiches in its stores, generally dated as the beginning of the UK sandwich boom.) Pictures of that first shop show a Roman abundance not dissimilar to a New York deli – meats piled in alluring mountains, cheeses arranged in evocative smorgasbords. Pret says the store sold about 12 coffees a day.
It took three years before Pret was ready to open a second shop. By 1998, there were more than 50 – Pret was serving 20 million customers a year, who ate 14 million sandwiches and drank ten million cups of coffee. By 2017 it was serving 1.4 million coffees a day, and before the pandemic, Pret had just over 400 shops in the UK, 300 of which were in London.
As these numbers attest, despite small expansions to Shanghai, Dubai, Singapore, Paris and New York, Pret remained intimately connected to London. It’s omnipresence doesn’t even extend to the rest of the UK – it is dwarfed by Starbucks (with circa 1,000 shops) McDonalds (1,300) Costa (2,400) and Greggs (1,950).
Pret blends packaged sandwiches – one of Britain’s most successful exports – with one of our contemporary addictions – extraordinary convenience. The chain tries to serve every customer within 60 seconds of entering the queue. This, along with the long-understood idea that workers were unwilling to walk further than a street or two for lunch, contributed to its growth. It emphasised freshness to customers – it claims that bacon is its most processed food.
“Culturally speaking, Pret fits well with the consumption habits of the country in general, and London in particular,” says Paolo Aversa, senior lecturer at Cass Business School. “In this country lunch for a lot of people is, unfortunately, 10 minutes in front of the computer.”
Its business was extraordinarily precise. “If you go back five years and want to find out how many bananas were sold on this day, in this window of time, you can find that out,” one former employee says. Clare Clough, the food director of Pret a Manger, told the Guardian that it can predict its busiest day for breakfast sandwiches years in advance. Pret also used predictive algorithms to continuously adjust production for each store. If one ran out of macaroni cheese by 3pm, ingredients were automatically increased for next day’s order. From 2011, food was trolleyed (not trucked, so that Pret could continue to claim freshness) to “twin shops” – stores that were too small to include kitchens, from designated “parent” shops nearby.
Its real estate enterprise was no random flood, either. Hundreds of data points contributed to new locations – historic sales, organisation structures, store visibility, signage, regional demographics, competitor locations, and estimations of foot traffic derived from mobile phone usage. Corner locations with large windows, which boasted superior visibility and natural light, were found to be vastly underrated by landlords,
Pret’s strategy was polar opposite to its major sandwich rival, Greggs. “Pret started on London high streets, then expanded the footprint. Greggs on the other side started in smaller cities, and then went into the main high street and motorway services,” says Ajay Bhalla, professor of family business and innovation at City Business school. “Pret is locked into their business model, which relies on volume and on people willing to pay a premium for their products – they don’t do discounts.”
This London focus, which shielded it from the broader high street decline and economic downturns outside the capital, has also proven to be Pret’s biggest weakness. As footfall to London’s centre collapsed, Pret’s empire stood empty.
The prospect of continued remote working has rendered flooding London an unviable business model. Commuting is likely never to return to previous levels; populations may spread out – scattering Pret’s key audience across the country.
So Pret plans to reinvent itself. Dramatic changes will now take place: it will open more suburban branches, deliver dinners to city dwellers, offer meal deals, and introduce a new subscription coffee service of up to five cups of coffee a day for £20 a month. Pret will also enter the grocery market – selling coffee and pre-packaged food. Most drastically, it has opened its first “dark kitchen” for delivery only and is developing a hot dinner menu to serve greater numbers of customers at home.
To survive, Pret will need to compete with Greggs and the local independent cafes that have benefited from commuters being kept at home, explains Yolande Barnes, chair of the Bartlett Real Estate Institute at UCL. It will face tough competition: a sandwich, drink and crisps at Pret will set you back close to £8; a meal deal at Boots is £3.99; a meal at Greggs is just £3.15.
Pret has done meal deals in other countries including Hong Kong and France, argues Pret CEO Pano Christou — but that doesn’t mean there will be a Pret £3 meal deal any time soon. “We’re not trying to be Greggs, and we will never be as cheap as Greggs,” he says. Some of the strategic changes were already in motion before the crisis, says Christou – home delivery and the move into groceries, for instance. Some, like coffee subscriptions, are entirely new. “Everything has been sped up significantly,” he admits.
The chain is now in the process of renegotiating its long-term leases, many of which are in London, in an attempt to lower rental costs. “A lot of landlords have been absolutely terrific,” says Christou. “And some landlords have not.”
Whether remote workers will be as interested in Pret when they can prepare a sandwich at home is still questionable. A Pret exodus to the country would leave chunks of prime real estate completely useless. What replaces it is anyone’s guess. “In an ideal world, these spaces become much more diverse, much more mixed,” says Barnes.
As of September 1, the law has changed to allow business, commercial or retail space to change what they are used for without planning permission, explains Simon Ricketts, a specialist in planning law. “Subject to whether there’s particular conditions on the Planning Commission, all of these units could be used for shops, restaurants, offices, gyms, medical centres, without the need for planning permission,” says Ricketts. “We’re going to see pretty significant changes in the way that the city and high streets look.”
But London’s inflated property prices make a bleaker future possible. “The worst thing that can happen for city centres is ex retail units being repurposed as inferior, micro-apartments,” says Phil Hubbard, a professor of urban studies at King’s College London. “Local high streets need to remain cultural hubs offering a mix of affordable retail, food, entertainment and services, without that vibrancy the hollowing out of London will continue apace.”
Coronavirus may not have killed Pret, but it has forced it into a drastically different form. “I have some confidence that Pret will be able to survive with its resources,” says Bhalla. “But whatever it does, it will have to be disruptive. It’ll have to be dramatic.“
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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